St. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord cannot come “unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness, the son of perdition,” is revealed. But “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work,” he adds. The man who gives full expression to that mystery, who completes the evolution of lawless humanity and leads its final rebellion, is the last but not by any means the first such man. Therefore, Paul’s warning is as useful today as at the end of the age.
Paramount Leader Xi Jinping is one such man of lawlessness. He has shown himself willing “to oppose and exalt himself against every so-called god or object of worship,” ruthlessly suppressing freedom of religion in China, stripping houses of worship of their crosses or other symbols, and subjecting everything and everybody to the interests of the Party. Xi’s policy of “Sinicizing” all religious expression renders religion entirely subservient to the state. Paul said the man of lawlessness would eventually seat himself in the temple as if he were God—some fathers believed that meant the Church, which Paul taught was the new temple of God—and Xi seems set to do just that.
This is the man with whom Cardinal Parolin and his colleagues in the Secretariat of State, at Pope Francis’s behest, are prepared to do business. On Saturday they signed a deal that reportedly gives the Party the primary role and final decision in appointing Chinese bishops in the Catholic Church. This deal requires the Church to reverse previous excommunications, permitting the Party to dictate even sacramental discipline. It brings the Party directly into the internal deliberations and deeds of the Church, whether administrative or evangelical or sacramental. It would be fundamentally wrong even if the state in question were the Holy Roman Empire rather than a godless, merciless, and murderous state like Communist China. The unity of which Cardinal Parolin has spoken will be a unity, not under God, but under Xi, who will stamp out the underground churches and force everyone into one Party-approved fold.
Canon law and Christus Dominus declare this action not merely imprudent, but also illegitimate. Francis has not revoked or suspended canon 377 §5, which states that “in the future no rights or privileges of election, appointment, presentation, or designation of bishops are conceded to civil authorities.” He and his representatives are themselves acting lawlessly in making this deal with China’s man of lawlessness.
Moreover, as Cardinal Zen has courageously said, in their lawlessness they are “giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves.” They are betraying the Chinese martyrs and China’s living witnesses who have suffered so long for faithfulness to Christ. “The brothers and sisters of the Chinese mainland,” as he said earlier, are not afraid of poverty, of prison, of shedding their blood; their greatest suffering is to see themselves betrayed by ‘family.’”
The pope is betraying Christians of every place and time who have bravely resisted attempts to make the Church of Jesus Christ do obeisance to the state. In former days, all that was required was a pinch of incense to the emperor—which Christians refused to offer, often at the expense of their lives. But now Chinese Catholics are not only asked to offer the pinch of incense to the paramount leader, but also to allow his officials to vet and appoint the bishops and clergy who will do so on their behalf. The scandalous practice of lay investiture has returned, and in a more scandalous form than it took in days of old. The path that led to Henry VIII and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in France is to be walked again.
This is no mere question of prudential judgment. If the state has oversight of the Church, that already witnesses to the falsity of the Church’s gospel. It puts the lie to the Church’s most basic confession, “Jesus is Lord,” since even in the Church the state becomes Lord. And in return for the Vatican’s confession that in China the state is Lord, China will acknowledge the pope as the titular head of all its Catholics. Of what value is that? Actually, China’s Catholics, like Catholics elsewhere, have but one head, Jesus Christ. The pope is not the head of Catholics, he is the head of the apostolic college. And his function as head of the apostolic college is the very thing Xi is depriving him of.
How is it that we have a pontiff and a Secretariat of State who either do not understand these things or do not care about them? To revoke or suspend Canon 377 §5 would have made their action less lawless on the mundane level, since it would no longer contravene Church law. But it would not have made it one whit less lawless on the theological level. For this action contravenes divine law—the decree that raised Jesus from the dead and set him at the Father’s right hand. It also contradicts the very nature of the Church.
What is the Church, if not an ambassadorial mission charged with declaring to the rulers and ruled of this world that all authority has passed to him who sits at the Father’s right hand and will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead? But the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was set up by the Chinese authorities to ensure that this message would not be properly heard in China. It was set up so that the host state could itself staff and manage the ecclesial embassy of Jesus Christ.
Those who are inclined to say of Francis, “Well, he is the pope, after all, and may do as he pleases,” should think again. Will they appeal to canon 1404, “the First See is judged by no one,” to justify their acquiescence and inaction? That canon condemns the pontiff himself in this matter. He is accountable directly to the Lord, yes, rather than human courts. But that means that he cannot be accountable, nor make himself accountable, to Xi Jinping or any secular leader in anything that concerns the Church qua Church. It means rather that he is bound to confess the true Lord as Lord. Apart from that constant and faithful act of confession he is not really acting as “Peter,” occupant of the First See, at all.
In the words of Vatican II’s Theological Commission, because the pope is especially accountable to the Lord, he is “also bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier councils, and other obligations too numerous to mention.” All this is at stake in Francis's decision to give the Communist Party of China the right to initiate and supervise episcopal appointments. Faithful bishops are bound, for their part, to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of this concordat and to recognize as brother bishops those who were appointed before it rather than those appointed under it. Or has the mystery of lawlessness progressed so far even in the Church itself that light can have fellowship with darkness, and Christ accord with Belial, just because the Secretariat says so?
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Christian Thought at McGill University and the author of Theological Negotiations (Baker Academic 2018).